Bury the Dead, Finborourgh Theatre

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by Lara Alier

The very first thing we see onstage is a dead body covered with a cloth. Is it a real person? I scrutinise its limbs and every part of its shape. That is the great thing about intimate theatre, that each member of the audience can really focus on small details and have a totally different experience.

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Forgotten, Arcola Theatre

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By Laura Kressly

Old Six and his wife Second Moon are poor but have a new baby. Eunich Lin is constantly ridiculed for his lack of balls and family’s poor timing. Big Dog doesn’t know his real name and loves smoking a bit too much. Apart from the love of performing Chinese opera to their friends and families, there’s little else that brings joy to this rural village in Shandong Province. But when the villagers hear that the British and French are recruiting men to work in labour camps to support the WWI troops, this could be a way to change their fortunes.

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Life According to Saki, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Author Hector Hugh Munro, otherwise known as Saki, is in WWI’s trenches. He and his men been out there for nearly a year, and they are long fed up with life on the front. To entertain his fellow troops, he tells the stories that have already made him a well-known writer. Life According to Saki mixes biography and fiction as Saki tells the audience about his life, interspersed with silly and bizarre anecdotes. The cast of six play both soldiers and the character’s in Saki’s stories with fantastic energy and physical commitment, but the structure of the play and Saki’s pontificating soon grows repetitive. An excessively long ending and too many stories ushers in eventual tedium despite a polished show with high production values.

Anna Lewis’ design is excellent; it clearly indicates the trenches and is flexible for the imagined worlds elsewhere. Costumes are WWI uniforms that fit the cast of women and men smartly – they are not frumpy, unaltered hire costumes. The puppets by Claire Roi Harvey and Suzi Battersby are also very good, with the cock being particularly charming with a great range of realistic movement.

The script is where it begins to fall flat a few stories in. Each one is very short, some only a few minutes long. There are about eight or ten altogether, and the constant shift from tale to tale is exhausting. The are performed with great physical comedy, accents and verge on the fantastical; each one is lovely but there are way too many. Episodes from Saki’s life are bland and dry filler, and the two styles feel forced to miserably cohabit in the same structure. The tacked-on conclusion preaches about how to live one’s life, then drags on even longer into a song and a poem. Though it blatantly states its message of living life to its fullest, the connection to the hour of stories preceding it is tenuous.

Three or four longer stories with depth and detail, and less of Saki’s biography (if any at all) would make this a much more engaging play. The premise of a soldier entertaining his troops is a fine one, but The Life of Saki comes across as self-centred and lecture-y with some silly, disconnected interludes.

Life According to Saki runs through 29th August.

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The Verge of Strife, Edinbrugh Festival Fringe

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The Wildean young poet Rupert Brooke revels in the self-absorbed, upper classes of Edwardian Oxford and London at the turn of the twentieth century. He finds virtue in beauty, love, poetry and little else. Vain, pretentious and excessive is his behaviour, he manipulates his friends and lovers, all in the name of art and pleasure. Though not a particularly likeable person, his poetry betrays emotional depth and inner conflict, and his social circle flocks to his talent and intensity. Verge of Strife largely focuses on his young life of frivolity, turbulent relationships and their reflection in his poems. Eventually known for his war poetry, this play celebrates his writing’s evolution through the lens of his life’s eras and the women he loved. The poetic but sedate script needs more action as it meanders through Edwardian summers, and nuanced performances are appropriately restrained, making this a somewhat sleepy aural bath.

Much of the story involves parties, encounters with friends and suitors, and a life of indulgent leisure and writing. The dialogue is pretty and light, with beauty but little substance. The narrative flutters rather than sharply rises and falls, presenting snapshots from his life rather than a continuous plot line. Though this mirrors real life, it does not make for particularly dramatic theatre. There is also a sharp change of direction in the final section of the play, presenting Rupert in a completely different role than that of his carefree youth. The contrast is sudden and not clearly explained; the lack of gradual change from wafting, emotional poet to no-nonsense commander jars and feels like there are scenes missing that explain how his life so dramatically altered. The minor characters and their potential to conflict with Rupert are also underused – Rupert is the sole focus throughout, with everyone else merely supporting.

Jonny Labey takes on the verbose Rupert, meticulously sculpting delicate and flirtatious mannerisms. The character is frustratingly shallow for much of the play, denying Labey much freedom to achieve any depth. He does effectively capture Rupert’s growing instability building up to his remarkable transition into a man of real responsibility, and his chemistry with the female characters is undeniable. Emma Barclay as the solemn intellectual Katherine Cox, and Sam Warren as his openly gay friend, are excellent and full of character.

With most of the cast delivering strong performances and pretty language enveloping the senses, The Verge of Strife certainly has its positives but the script needs further work to add clarity and substance in order to communicate its message about the impact of war on a young artist.

The Verge of Strife runs through 29th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

 

The White Feather, Union Theatre

During WWI, men considered too afraid to enlist were given white feathers by those disapproving of their cowardice. Also common were boys too young to join up lying about their ages so they could experience the excitement of battle. Then there were the hundreds who were killed for desertion and cowardice in the face of the enemy. These young men suffered from PTSD, an ailment not understood or acknowledged until well after the war was over.

A cast of nine tells the story of 16-year-old Harry Briggs, who cheerfully joins up to escape humdrum village life, and his sister Georgina’s search for the truth of what really happened to her kid brother out on the front. Whilst trying to clear his name, she discovers hidden secrets of her fellow Suffolk villagers, learning more than she bargained for. Spanning several decades and touching on a wide range of issues including homosexuality, shellshock, the class system and the reality of life in the trenches, The White Feather is an intimate, provincial musical with a sturdy first act and excellent music, that reflects the close-knit and often overbearing aspect of life in a small place during wartime. The second act, shorter but covering a much longer period of time, is rather choppy and introduces an interesting subplot but too late to for much development.

Abigail Matthews flawlessly leads as the kind but tenacious Georgina Briggs, supported by wonderfully mouthy best friend, Edith (Katie Brennan). It’s not all about the girls though; David Flynn as the conflicted lord of the manor Adam Davey is the most complex character of the lot and deserves more focus than the script gives him. Edward Brown, played by Zac Hamilton, has a couple of great scenes showcasing his emotional range. This is a great cast size for a musical: enough voices to give the larger numbers a punch, but not so large that some characters are relegated to the ensemble.

A piano, violin and cello trio give the music richness but an acoustic, rural tone that beautifully suits the world of the musical. The book and music are well integrated and transitions from one to the other are mostly smooth. The act finales could stand to be a bit longer, but otherwise the music feels developed, albeit quite gentle. The book follows an evenly paced narrative arc for the first half, but several jumps feel choppy and disruptive after the interval. The programme helps with indicating the time leaps, but more could be added to the script and design to clarify them so the audience doesn’t have to regularly refer to the programme. The Adam Davey subplot could do with more than a single, brief reference in the first half in order to have greater plot integration later, but this could potentially detract from the main thread of Georgina’s quest for justice. Though the title can represent Harry’s perceived cowardice, there is little mention of the feather as a convention of the time. All of the focus points are worthy of presentation and add to the overall story, but perhaps the show is trying to do too much. Without lengthening it quite a lot, some aspects of the plot will remain under-developed.

With an engrossing first act, detailed and complimentary characters, The White Feather writers clearly Ross Clark and Andrew Keates have a gift for telling great stories. New musicals often disappear after their initial run, but this one is a mostly polished affair that deserves more development and larger houses. In the Union Theatre, it’s an emotionally charged, intimate experience not to be missed, even with its shortcomings.


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